My cousin Charlie Finch, writer and Senior Critic for Artnet Worldwide, sent some words of advice in response to my recent post about Avatar: “I think one needs to tread very carefully when dealing with expensive cultural phenomena such as “Avatar” or Susan Boyle. These are cultural anvils dropped from on high with the apparent touch of a feather that are designed to manipulate our emotions and separate us from our wallets and our identities, so “caveat emptor.””
These are wise words, and I agree with them. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I am usually more than qualified to say, often proudly but sometimes in real embarrassment at how clueless I can be about things that a lot of other people know about, “cavo popular culture” (i think that would be the correct form of the verb “beware” in Latin). And yet, about Avatar—and about another archetypal meme of female empowerment, Susan Boyle, whose emergence video I watched more than once in tears and forwarded along to many people including Charlie—I have broken this longstanding habit. I have soaked up these phenomena with guileless abandon and, furthermore, in the case of Avatar, I have made a public spectacle of my delight.
Musing about the reasons for all this, I have decided that the longterm habit of marginalization must have bred in me a near-permanent sense of invincibility.
After decades in which my beliefs and passions have been utterly unacknowledged in mass culture, let alone mainstream educated culture, the notion that they could somehow be betrayed by a popular culture exploitation or false portrayal or some kind of ‘selling out” feels so patently absurd that I simply haven’t bothered to build up any immunity to the possibility or any armor against it.
Yet isn’t this just what popular culture feeds on? With a nose bent on sniffing out the juicy aroma of the repressed-nearly-to-bursting, where else would it turn but to the beliefs and tastes held with undaunted persistence for so long by certain perversely stubborn aficionados of the hopelessly marginal? And why shouldn’t pop culture respond to the same changes and needs as unpop culture does, even if on a different scale and a different time-line? Pop culture IS culture (“Poetry and Popular Culture” even has its own blog now), and its hunger is further aggravated by the current gap between popular and “high” culture, and the fact that pop culture itself is so marginal in some contexts (for example, Stonecoast’s popular fiction degree is practically unique among MFA programs). In fact, freed of the self-feeding, if economically small-scale, loops that nurture high art ( the poetry world was recently and aptly described as a self-licking ice-cream cone), isn’t pop culture, however economically constrained, in some ways more aesthetically free to respond to the times?
For whatever reason, some of my personally long-awaited changes are coming true in both the pop and unpop worlds (and of course in those wonderful worlds that span the two—such as Miyazaki’s films). Not only has iceberg lettuce vanished, not only does the local TV station wish people a happy solstice over a loop of a burning Yule log, but things I used to be afraid I was making up, from plant and mineral energies to meter’s revolutionary power to animals’ intelligence to the virtues of Sara Teasdale (touted, for one thing, in Nicholson Baker’s new novel The Anthologist) are increasingly, if still rarely, understood to be real. Opera is cool again, and no doubt epic, occasional poetry, and poetry as ritual will reemerge too, just as I always knew they would. I have students who seem to “get it” as far as poetry is concerned—to get what, at their age, I used to despair that anyone else would ever get. Hart Crane is no longer despised, Helen Adam is out in a beautiful new edition, Swinburne is probably due for a comeback. Some young poets get excited about writing sonnets and triple meters. And a movie featuring a goddess-centered culture earns a billion dollars in the first two weeks.
Whether my own work and that of so many others has been helping with the changes; whether we have the age-old power of the pendulum to thank; or whether this strange sense of triumphantly but mildly perplexed relief happens to everyone in their 50s, the weather is changing. So let’s just pretend for a moment that the tide really has turned, and much of the beauty and value that I for one have been working so long to salvage out of total oblivion is really going to matter to enough people—whether in the realm of poetry or more generally— that it will survive in some form as part of the cultural conversation.
Whatever the cause, what I’m most curious about is what happens next. Much as I might have joked about it over the years, I really didn’t like all those things simply because they were unpopular. I found in them something that inspired me in my particular cultural and psychological situation and moment, that felt essential for my own aesthetic and spiritual thriving. At first, sick of feeling so alone, I fought against myself about them fiercely, but once I gave in to myself, I fought FOR them fiercely in the outer world, and I always knew on some level that I couldn’t be alone. Part of the poet’s job, after all, is to be a bellwether for the culture, a canary in the mine (hopefully one who can fly out and point the way elsewhere), a lightning rod for whatever energies will be needed next.
I have seen people who have long been fighting a battle whose tide may have started to turn handle the situation in various ways. Some continue the struggles of their youth, maintaining the increasingly surreal-looking stance of the bitter beleaguered from a podium of influence. Others seem to give up doing much of anything.
But perhaps, just as the longterm habit of marginalization breeds a near-permanent sense of invincibility, so the longterm habit of obscurity breeds a near-permanent sense of invisibility. And if the truth is that neither the invincibility nor the invisibility is true, then it seems there will be plenty left to do.